The Co-Discoverer Of Ebola Never Imagined An Outbreak Like This

Aug 29, 2014
Originally published on August 29, 2014 7:40 pm

As a young scientist in Belgium, Peter Piot was part of a team that discovered the Ebola virus in 1976.

He took his first trip to Africa to investigate this mysterious disease. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, he met people who had contracted it. "I'll never forget the glazed eyes, the staring and the pain ... this type of expression in the eyes ... telling me I'm going to die," says Piot. "That I'll never forget."

Piot went on to study AIDS in the 1980s and became founding executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. He is now director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In an interview with NPR's Melissa Block, Piot tells the story of Ebola's discovery: He and his colleagues were looking at samples from a Belgian nun who had died of a disease in Congo. The question he thought he was trying to answer: Was it yellow fever?

Instead it was a new disease. "I was excited," he recalls, "because one of the dreams of any microbiologists is to discover a new pathogen. That was very excited. But I certainly didn't think it would develop into such a human tragedy as we're seeing now in West Africa."

"This is absolutely unexpected and unprecedented," he says. "We have here a situation where Ebola finds an enormously fertile ground in very poor countries with very dysfunctional health systems," he says. "A country like Liberia in 2010 only 51 doctors for the whole country."

He hopes there will never be another outbreak like this one. "I hope that this is the last epidemic where all we have [as treatment] is isolation of patients and quarantines and some supportive care, and we don't have stockpiles of vaccines and therapies."

There is potential for Ebola to spread to neighboring African countries, he says, but he is not worried about "high-income countries."

"Our basic hospital hygiene is such that it is highly unlikely it would give rise to epidemics," he says.

But he does warn that we are moving into a future where health risks will increase: "We'll have to be prepared that in a globalized world, these viruses will spread much faster than ever before."

Note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity.

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We're going to hear now from the scientist who first discovered the Ebola virus with colleagues back in 1976. Peter Piot joins me from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he's the director. Dr. Piot, welcome.


BLOCK: Have you ever seen an Ebola outbreak on this scale before - what we're seeing in Africa now?

PIOT: I never thought we would see such a devastating and vast epidemic of Ebola ever because all previous nearly 25 other outbreaks were local - I mean, even if sometimes they killed 300 people. But an outbreak involving three countries - now, actually, even more - the end is not in sight. This is absolutely unexpected and unprecedented.

BLOCK: And from your perspective, what accounts for that fact - that it has spread so widely and continues to spread?

PIOT: A deadly virus like Ebola finds an enormously fertile ground in very poor countries with very dysfunctional health systems. A country like Liberia in 2010 only had 51 doctors for the whole country. A lack of trust in Western medicine and the government and far more increased mobility across borders - all that has contributed to this outbreak at the moment.

BLOCK: Dr. Piot, I'd like you to think back to 1976, the year that you first co-discovered the virus in the country then known as Zaire - now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. You were 27 years old at the time. How did you figure out what the virus was that you were dealing with?

PIOT: Well, we isolated the virus with our team at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, from samples from a Belgian man who had died with a disease. And the question mark was whether this was yellow fever or not. Under the electron microscope, we saw something completely different than what we had expected - a worm-like structure - and only one virus looked like that.

BLOCK: A wormlike structure...

SPEAKER: Yes. It was not so big as a worm because you couldn't even see it under a normal microscope. You need an electron microscope than magnifies up to 100,000 times. And we went to work with our colleagues in Zaire - in Congo - tried to figure out how is this virus transmitted because we had absolutely no clue. And that was essential to knowing in order to stop the epidemic.

BLOCK: When you first went to Congo and started seeing patients who were dying from Ebola - had died from Ebola - did they present in a way that made you realize I'm looking at something here that I've never seen before?

PIOT: Yeah. First of all, this was my first time in Africa. But certainly, I'll never forget their eyes - you know, the staring and the pain. And I saw that later - a few years later, when I started working on AIDS in central Africa. I saw this type of expression in their eyes that were telling me I'm going to die. And that I'll never forget.

BLOCK: There is news this week from the National Institutes of Health that they will be testing an experimental vaccine on healthy people who have volunteered. What would your expectations be for that trial?

PIOT: Well, first of all, I would say that I hope that this is the last epidemic of Ebola where all we have is isolation of patients - quarantine -and some supportive care. And that we don't have stockpiles of vaccines and therapies in the region. So really, I'm very pleased that such trials are going to start - not only of vaccines, but also of treatments.

BLOCK: Why is there no existing Ebola vaccine, after so long - 38 years after you helped discover this virus?

PIOT: Well, first of all, the number of people who have been exposed to Ebola epidemics has been very limited. I mean, 25 outbreaks in 38 years is not that much, and it's limited to Africa. So this is clearly not a major market. That's one thing. But particularly through funding that was aimed at anti-bioterrorism research, experimental vaccines have been developed - I'm aware of three of them - and also some therapies. So now is the time to invest further because my concern was that once the epidemic is over, we'd go back to normal. And we would forget that developing vaccines and the treatments takes a long time. It's expensive. And we need to be ready for the next outbreak.

BLOCK: Well, Dr. Piot, thank you for talking with us today.

PIOT: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Peter Piot, one of the scientists who discovered the Ebola virus back in 1976. He's now director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.